Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Revisit: Johnny Cash: Sings the Ballads of the True West

Johnny Cash
Sings the Ballads of the True West

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

In 2010, we know the album title is just plain wrong. The equally romantic and tragic view of the American West that dominates Johnny Cash's Sings the Ballads of the True West is the stuff of old black and white TV shows and movie westerns, where the men were macho and the women were either virtuous (boring) or loose with their morals (preferable). Much like Gone with the Wind once did so much to shape the public's perception of the Civil War South as a time of honorable men, beautiful belles and contented slaves, True West offers a narrow interpretation of an American past that existed - still exists - only on Hollywood stages and in dimestore novels. The "other" West, that of early industrialization, transient workers and immigration, plays no part in Cash's work.

But True West remains among Cash's most consistent concept albums, even if some songs, particularly those with an excess of strings and background singers, sound campy. The album cover of a mustachioed Cash, reclining against a tree and gripping a gun, is also about as hokey as it gets. But what kind of world are we met with in True West? Primarily it is one of death. In the traditional "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie," the dying youth with the "pallid lips" begs not to be buried in the middle of fucking nowhere. His wish isn't granted; Cash as narrator here is respectful but coldly matter-of-fact: "In a narrow grave, just six by three/ We buried him there on the lone prairie," he coolly sings. The similarly-themed traditional "Streets of Laredo" also takes as its subject a dying young man who's "done wrong"; what exactly he's done is never stated, but like the figure of "Prairie" he dies with his final request, cold water to drink, unfulfilled. Other songs chosen for True West fit this mold as well: in "A Letter from Home" yet another dying cowboy - already bummed because no one in his family writes to him - croaks with only a stranger and an unread Bible for company, while in Harlan Howard's "The Blizzard" a man traveling the plains is found frozen to death "just a hundred yards from Mary Anne."

Yet however limited its historical scope or understanding may be, history does inform much of the album. It's in these songs where Cash's familiar world of violence, criminals, outlaws and, ever so rarely, heroes is at its most prevalent. Cash performs Ramblin' Jack Elliott's "Mr. Garfield" - its subject the assassination in 1881 of the President by Charles J. "Charley" Guiteau - with no small amount of black humor, especially in the dialog between the two brothers who tell the story. Cash approaches Carl Perkins' "The Ballad of Boot Hill" rather differently, portraying Billy Clanton, shot dead in the famous Tombstone gunfight of 1881, as a purely innocent, and altogether tragic, figure (the actual events of what transpired are more ambiguous than Cash suggests). In a shade over four minutes Cash summarizes the bloody life and death of the infamous namesake outlaw of "Hardin Wouldn't Run," though the singer's version infuses the criminal with traces of nobility and bravery (or stupidity, as the fact that he "wouldn't run" is what gets Hardin killed, bullet to the back of the head). Hardin's killer, John Selman, would reportedly shoot him three more times after that head shot; Cash omits this rather brutal, and decidedly less folksy, detail from his narrative.

The accuracy of the Merle Kilgore-penned "Johnny Reb" is likewise dicey; desertion from the Confederate army was frequent, even at the war's early stages, and thus Cash's praise of Southern soldiers who "fought all the way" must be seen as idealized Southern mythmaking. But one gets the sense that Cash, regardless of his exhortations in "Reflections" to see "now and then the West as it really was," was primarily interested in that mythic version of the Old West as he saw it instead of historical objectivity. Throughout the album Cash conjures up a vision of the West that primarily resides only in the American imagination, an ethos that Cash also furthers in the album's liner notes. Some songs from True West would later succeed outside the album's context - most notably, "25 Minutes to Go," which Cash would include on At Folsom Prison - but most of the songs here work best when heard in an album context. True West often blurs that thin line between historical fact and poetic license, but folklore and music have always been intertwined. Few artists have managed to meld these two sometimes-contrasting aspects as well as Johnny Cash, and it's in his abilities as a storyteller that we are still able to appreciate True West as an example of how we remember, and in some cases idealize, our collective history.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Interview: Bill Callahan

I interview Bill Callahan here:


Monday, September 13, 2010

Hoboes: by Mark Wyman

by Mark Wyman
Rating: 2.5/5.0
Publisher: Hill and Wang

In Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West, historian Mark Wyman attempts to define the role of the migrant worker in the expansion of the western United States. Centered on the years between the advent of the railroad and the rise of the automobile in the pre-Depression 1920s, the book offers a rather untraditional account of the West's settlement, abandoning the popular depiction of a rip-roarin' wild west of outlaws, cowboys, Indians and hokey Johnny Cash songs in favor of a narrative that places this mass of seasonal workers at the forefront.

At its best, Hoboes provides a mostly sympathetic and thoroughly researched picture of the transients whose grunt work in the fields, farms and orchards of the western United States played a major role in the country's economic growth. Wyman's hobo is not that of the stereotypically shiftless and potentially dangerous loner portrayed in various newspapers of the day. Instead, the author paints a revisionist portrait that is far more balanced, showing how laborers of various stripes - American, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Mexican - made the country's agricultural industries possible. With each chapter built around the story of a specific state's economic development, Wyman tells of these workers' hard, anonymous lives: those already below the poverty level and how they endured low pay, long hours, dangerous working and unsanitary living conditions; a public and government whose sympathy for immigrant laborers decreased as the isolationist xenophobia of post-World War I America increased; the physical and psychological tolls such a lifestyle exacted.

Nevertheless, Hoboes cannot be recommended to a general audience. Wyman is first and foremost a historian, exhibiting many of the negative connotations that come along with that. The author's writing style tends to be overly methodical (read: dry) and professorial (read: very dry): if a reader doesn't already have an interest in Western labor history, this book likely won't spark such an interest. Although the text is far less imposing than other labor histories, it too often reads like a textbook or dissertation written solely for the highly-educated and tenured-for-decades academia crowd. Certainly, Wyman again proves himself an authority on this topic, but his writing sometimes feels cold, clinical and occasionally repetitive; the book's final summary pages give a concise recap of Wyman's main arguments, but it could be a difficult task getting to that point for some readers. For a casual audience, the most interesting aspect of Hoboes may be its colorful title.

Hoboes does succeed as a study that asserts the migrant's importance in the development of the West and brings some dignity to the many whose lives and contributions to the United States mostly went unnoticed. Wyman also shows how some of the key features and moral questions of this westward expansion, particularly immigration, continue to remain relevant today. But it's a book best left to the scholars, as it assumes a familiarity with the subject that many readers simply won't have and is written without much flair or personality. Those scholars will have plenty to discuss and debate; the rest of us who tag along could find the ride fairly tedious.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Acorn: No Ghost

The Acorn
No Ghost
Rating: 3.0/5.0
Label: Bella Union

A music fan could be forgiven for being unable to keep these hordes of Canadian bands straight. As her homegrown groups continue to push modern indie in various directions, Canada unarguably has, likely permanently, altered the indie landscape, and coupled with the rise of Internet media, probably has a larger present-day visibility than Athens, Minneapolis, Chicago, DC or Seattle ever did. On the strength of a slew of EPs and debut album Glory Hope Mountain, the Acorn merits consideration as among the country's most inventive bands. That full-length, a collection of songs based on the life of singer Rolf Klausener's Honduran-born mother, joined image-rich lyrics with folk and South American rhythms and instrumentation. To these ears at least, it remains every bit as good as Funeral, You Forgot It in People or Apologies to the Queen Mary.

To the band's credit, they don't try to simply rehash the sound of Glory Hope Mountain for their follow-up; instead, No Ghost is remarkably louder and more aggressive than its predecessor. Recorded in Quebec and Montreal - press material hints at the type of isolation, probably exaggerated, that likewise frame the background to both For Emma, Forever Ago and Hospice - parts of it are miles removed from Glory's acoustically-inclined exoticism. "Cobbled From Dust" opens the album with abrasive guitars and feedback; later on, the title song combines a driving guitar with strings that sound like they're being strangled. "Restoration" deceptively begins as a simple folk song before it picks up momentum and furiously tumbles to a stop. Jeffrey Malecki's heavy drumming propels "I Made the Law" and "Bobcat Goldwraith;" both songs suggest touring with Calexico in 2009 had an effect on the Acorn, especially in the Southwest-style guitar and vocals of the former and in the horns of the latter.

Some of No Ghost retreats to the safe, familiar territory of Glory, and while these songs aren't redundant, none of them are as powerful as something like "Hold Your Breath" or "Crooked Legs." On "Misplaced," Klausener's lilting, almost breezy vocals contrast with the track's desolate tone and lyrics; the equally downcast "Almanac," "On the Line" and final song "Kindling to Cremation" feature some of the band's most understated melodies and vocal harmonies. This approach fails on "Slippery When Wet" - no relation whatsoever to New Jersey's 1980s big-haired native son - another folksy song filled with delicate guitars, even more delicate strings and truly horrid opening lyrics about a panda climbing a tree.

Fortunately, that song is a rare misstep for Klausener as a writer, as most of No Ghost reads as good on paper as it sounds in stereo. Though its songs don't follow an obvious narrative structure like Glory did, much of the album is coated with layers of dust and death, as fatalistic references to bones, hair falling from aging heads, heart attacks, veins, vultures and cauterized cobwebs dominate the songs. No Ghost doesn't necessarily have as many peak moments as Glory, but it doesn't recycle that masterwork either and does enough to suggest that the Acorn's finest effort might still be to come.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Richard Thompson: Dream Attic

Richard Thompson
Dream Attic
Rating: 3.5/5.0
Label: Shout! Factory

In September of 2009, CNN's website published an interview with Richard Thompson under the headline "Richard Thompson, the greatest guitarist you've never heard of." To anyone with the even faintest knowledge of music history, such a headline must have seemed purely absurd, the type of thing aimed entirely at the squares and those corporate desk jockeys who spend their lunch hour on CNN.com. But it's been the easy music journalist's tagline about Thompson for several decades, and I suppose nothing will change it at this point, even if it's mostly bullshit. Though the musician usually only barely scratches the Billboard charts and has made commercial indifference something of an art form, no one can reasonably argue that he's laboring in obscurity either. His shows sell out and his fan base isn't going anywhere until they leave this mortal coil; we're not talking about some starving artist scraping by on peanuts and playing to half-empty dives.

So even if Thompson's latest, the mostly stellar Dream Attic, doesn't make him a household name, that's all right, as it again confirms his standing as one of music's undisputed giants, equally on the level of a Dylan, Springsteen, Waits or Young. With such an extensive back catalog from which to compare, it's too early to definitively say how Dream Attic stacks up against what preceded it, but it has all the characteristics of Thompson's strongest and it's likely years from now it will be considered as one of the musician's most consistent releases. Almost all the major traits that have defined Thompson's albums can be found scattered among its 13 songs. Thompson's biting satirical wit can be found in both leadoff track "The Money Shuffle" and "Here Comes Geordie;" his ability to craft - to borrow his words - wrist-slashing ballads is displayed in "Among the Gorse, Among the Grey" and "Stumble On;" his catalog of murder/crime songs is nicely augmented with "Crimescene" and "Sidney Wells." There are also, of course, deceptively buoyant and catchy songs about dysfunctional relationships and their attendant suspicions and paranoia, in this case "Big Sun Falling in the River." Supported by an ace band that adds horns, strings, percussion and other instrumentation to Thompson's masterful - a true understatement there - guitar work, other songs like "Haul Me Up," "Bad Again" and "If Love Whispers Your Name" should stand up as some of the finest ensemble playing to be had on any Thompson record.

The album was recorded live during a brief West Coast tour in February, and like previous Thompson concert albums the sound and execution are both warmer and more immediate that much of Thompson's studio output, which to me sometimes tend to feel coldly detached and overly produced. Though it's strange that audience applause can be heard before and after only a few songs, Dream Attic unarguably benefits from being recorded live; it's occasionally raw - Thompson's voice cracks on a few tracks - but the musicianship and complete lack of studio embellishments capture what it's like to see Thompson in concert.

Tom Waits has said that his wife jokes that he writes two kinds of songs: grand weepers and grim reapers. This statement could easily apply to Thompson as well - minus the Eyeball Kids and the man with missing fingers who plays a strange guitar - and throughout Dream Attic, it's all too easy to overlook its lyrics among all the instrumental prowess both the band and Thompson exhibit. But there is pure lyrical artistry on this release, via the various barbed insults and plain-old sadness in Thompson's writing, especially in something as achingly moving as "I've learned how long the night is when you're gone" or as Cave-level macabre as "Then he took off her clothes and threw them in a pile/ He watched her stand there cold and shivering for a while/ Then he picked up her stocking lying on the floor/ And wrapped it round her neck until she breathed no more."

The album loses some of its steam after that murder song, but overall it's every bit as worthwhile as Thompson's previous live albums. A handful of tracks here would also fit in well on any serious Best of Thompson compilation. If not quite a masterpiece, Dream Attic offers enough of Thompson's alternately acerbic observations and droll humor and a crack band in peak form to make it required listening for both long-time Thompson fans, newbies and, yes, even the suit-and-tie crowd that get by on a steady diet of CNN.com

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Land of Talk: Cloak and Cipher

Land of Talk
Cloak and Cipher
Rating: 2.0/5.0
Label: Saddle Creek

Just how many catchy, brightly shimmering, guitar-fueled pop choruses can one listener stand? Such is the question raised by Land of Talk's latest album, the so-formulaic-it-hurts Cloak and Cipher. Worse, the album's tendency to drum up these punchy choruses like clockwork and with all the dedication of someone feeding an addiction is not its only flaw, as this repetition also extends to Elizabeth Powell's always enunciated, occasionally barely-above-a-breathy-whisper vocals as well as the mid-tempo pace of most tracks. As such the album is a regression for Land of Talk after a decent EP and somewhat less decent full-length, frequently showing that a good idea done to death is, well, overkill.

The album opens solidly enough with the title track, establishing a gauzy, melody-focused pattern for most of what follows. Even follow-up track "Goaltime Exposure," which stretches past the five-minute mark and essentially revisits the same verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus-more-friggin' chorus approach, is palatable and sometimes contains solid lyrics. But by third song "Quarry Hymns," the jig is up: though its pace slackens from its predecessors, at nearly six minutes it's overlong and Powell's vocals sound like they were misplaced in the mid-'90s female folksinger revival and only recently unearthed by a Lilith Fair fanatic. "Hamburg, Noon" and "Blangee Blee" repeat the same structure as these earlier songs, offering up sing-along lyrics and hummable melodies but very little of anything consequential. The result is an album that is tedious and, coupled with its fairly lengthy running time, one that is likely to test a listener's patience like few albums can.

It's not that that these songs are bad; far from it. Indeed, if I stumbled across one on iPod Shuffle or satellite radio I probably would give it a listen, even if I could live with never hearing it again. True, there are some moments on Cloak and Cipher that at least temporarily stall its overwhelming predictability, as on the slowed-down tempo of "Better and Closer" and "Playita," the distorted vocals and electronics of "The Hate I Won't Commit" and the hard rock guitars of "Swift Coin." Still, a few tricks and embellishments here and there aren't enough to make most of the songs sound anything but excessively similar; it's simply too much of an average thing.

It doesn't help things that Powell tends to sound like almost every sweet-throated female singer who's released an album since 1972. Cloak and Cipher is recommended to be absorbed in small amounts, and perhaps there's a good EP buried in here. But taken as an album it's a difficult listen, not because it's particularly avant garde - far, far from it -but instead because it prefers to club listeners upside the head with choruses laid out like a roadmap. There's nothing wrong with a great chorus, of course, but time shouldn't seem to crawl when listening to a record.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Rediscover: brute. - Nine High a Pallet

Nine High a Pallet

Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.

News of Vic Chesnutt's suicide in late 2009 was followed by numerous career assessments and eulogies for a musician whose mainstream profile was marginal at best. These articles largely focused on Chesnutt's solo work, overlooking his side projects and thus creating an incomplete, though highly sympathetic, appraisal of the artist's life and career. In some ways this is understandable. Though nearly all of his albums featured full-band arrangements, Chesnutt was never really able to shake the media's perception of him as the solitary, weirdo Southern folkie we first heard on Little.

Fifteen years after its release, Nine High a Pallet, Chesnutt's first collaboration with members of Widespread Panic as the lower-cased band brute., stands as perhaps his most successful side project, with the possible exception of the Elf Power-assisted Dark Developments. Recorded over two days in December 1993 and released in September 1995 - the same year as Is the Actor Happy? - the album mixes songs representative of Chesnutt's early 1990s style and subject matter with curiosity pieces (including a Hoyt Axton cover) as well as a few others that deserve consideration as among Chesnutt's best. Several songs could cozy up comfortably to Actor. The first half of "Westport Ferry" consists of guitar, occasional harmonica and pedal steel - immediately reminiscent of "Gravity of the Situation" - while the song's latter half utilizes a quiet-loud dynamic similar to "Free of Hope" and "Strange Language." The song's macabre story is vintage early Chesnutt; in this case, the narrator sings about, "Warm bodies in plastic wrap" and muses over"Brilliant men/...lost in that murky deep." "Cataclysm" closes Pallet on a comparable musical and lyrical note. With phrases like "Bang the hubcap slowly" and "The cataclysm is over/ They've swept away the shards," it's tempting to read the song as autobiographical - another thinly-veiled nod to the car crash that left Chesnutt paralyzed - but the song is ultimately ambiguous. Indeed, we never find out what exactly the cataclysm was, only that the "horror clocks" have been reset and that "the tragic path" has been cleared.

But a large portion of Nine High a Pallet is unlike anything Chesnutt had recorded previously, showing how Widespread Panic's Southern roots rock contributed to Chesnutt's loosest, loudest and most atypical songs up to that point. Severe and shredding electric guitar, bar-room keyboards and heavy percussion drive several songs, especially "Bastards in Bubbles," "George Wallace" and "Good Morning Mr. Hard On," maybe the least subtly-titled song in Chesnutt's entire catalog. "PC" is likewise an anomaly, its circus-like keyboards framing one of Chesnutt's more mocking, if somewhat less vitriolic than normal, put-down songs. The everyday family tale of "Protein Drink/Sewing Machine" ranks as one of Chesnutt's most sludgy, punishing songs, its nine bizarre minutes incorporating fuzzy guitars and echoed, distorted vocals. Chesnutt would eventually include a starker version of "Sewing Machine" on Skitter On Take-Off.

Nine High a Pallet can be considered Chesnutt's first truly "experimental" album; even more so than Drunk, it moves away from the folk-based structures of Little and West of Rome and also hints at the type of songs he'd record with increasing frequency after About To Choke. In light of Chesnutt's suicide some songs are like hard punches to the gut, especially "Blight" ("I set into a downward spiral/ Got an illness that was literally viral") and "Miserable," a tactile song of spider veins, alcohol and vitals that sounds like a thematic cousin to "Lucinda Williams" and "Stupid Preoccupations." There will now be plenty of time to find examples of ominous foreshadowing throughout this catalog, but Chesnutt's music is not a two decades-long suicide note. Nine High a Pallet showcases Chesnutt in top form and, above all else, dispels the popular image of Chesnutt as purely a solo artist.

Friday, September 03, 2010

LouFest 2010

Another Spectrum Culture writer and I attended this year's LouFest in St. Louis.

Take a read and enjoy the pictures here: